On His First Ever Collection of Original Solo Songs, Jeff Tweedy Uncovers Himself Like Never Before
By Sam Sodomsky
Near the beginning of WARM, Jeff Tweedy sings, “What I’ve been through should matter to you.” Coming from the tenderest reaches of his soft, broken tenor, the line is raised more like a question than a command. But he has a point. While Tweedy’s songbook in Wilco and Uncle Tupelo has obliquely touched on his personal life, his music often feels more like an outstretched arm, a box of tissues slid across the table, a series of words spoken with the implicit follow-up question, “And how does that make you feel?” Scan Wilco’s audience during the opening notes of any song, and you’ll see the response: tears, hugs, the saddest fist-pumps in rock music. It’s a relationship that Tweedy himself observed a decade back when he promised, “Sonic shoulder for you to cry on/Wilco will love you, baby,” in a song called “Wilco (The Song).”
Now the 51-year-old has finally opened up, and it’s not just a confession—it’s an avalanche. His new book, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), is one of the most engaging rock memoirs in recent years because it dispenses with the assumed responsibility of a quiet, beloved figure like Tweedy. In contrast with his koans of empathy in Wilco, he writes about his family, fatherhood, addiction, and creative process in charmingly unfiltered prose. A companion to the book, WARM radiates with similar openness. Characters and quotes reappear; old influences become newly apparent; words are not minced. A scene from his time in rehab during the early 2000s is retold in the bleary opener “Bombs Above.” “Suffering is the same for everyone,” he sings in a whisper, relaying the advice that once gave him permission to address his own struggles guilt-free. Much of the album follows suit: a moral guidebook from a songwriter who sings with such compassion that even his simplest advice (“Don’t forget to brush your teeth”) can make your eyes well up.
After hearing Tweedy trade riffs and sprawl out with full bands for so long, WARM’s solo setting feels fresh. This is his most threadbare collection of music. Songs drone on as long as he wants or stop abruptly once he runs out of words. This spontaneity allows Tweedy’s wisdom to feel both casual and all-encompassing: worn-in proverbs that just occurred to him, as he elaborates and pokes holes in his own fatalist tendencies. Textured with acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and brush-stroked drums from his son Spencer and Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche, WARM follows a legacy of reflective, autumnal works like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. This is music that, in and of itself, feels autobiographical, touching on sounds and themes that have always characterized his work without sounding like a retread.
In the most harrowing section of his memoir, Tweedy writes that Wilco’s impressionistic 2004 album A Ghost Is Born was sculpted during the throes of opiate addiction as an attempt to leave a comprehensive self-portrait for his sons in his absence. Written from a more stable perspective, WARM mirrors that eulogistic process with a more straightforward, less metaphorical bent. “Sometimes we all think about dying,” he sighs in “Don’t Forget.” “Don’t let it kill ya.”
Tweedy thinks about dying a lot on WARM. The recent death of his own father casts a cloud over the record, stopping the clock as he looks at an old photograph during the sparse, slow-pulsing “How Hard It Is for a Desert to Die.” For every stark expression of grief, there’s a search for hope, embracing the inevitability of losing the things that come to define us. “If I die,” he instructs in “From Far Away,” “Don’t bury me/Rattle me down like an old machine.” He treats these songs similarly, like weary vehicles for moving on. In “Let’s Go Rain,” he forecasts the apocalypse as a karmic “act of love,” while the title track defines the afterlife as something that glows within the people we leave behind. None of these ideas are new. It’s his acceptance, his understanding, that feels pivotal.
The album’s most revealing moment is also one of Tweedy’s best songs to date. “Having Been Is No Way to Be” is a statement of self-affirmation that not many songwriters live to make, addressing how Tweedy’s sobriety affected some of Wilco’s fair-weather followers. “Now people say,” he sings to a slow, sturdy beat, “‘What drugs did you take?/And why don’t you start taking them again?’” He’s referring to the oft-discussed shift in Wilco’s music during the mid-2000s, when they stopped aiming to be the decade’s most adventurous American rock band and starting sounding, well, a little more like the Eagles. Here, Tweedy draws a line in the sand. “They’re not my friends,” he continues, “And if I was dead, what difference would it ever make to them?” Alive and inspired, WARM is a different type of reinvention—as daring as Wilco’s early landmarks but more subtle and sustainable. He’s not trying to break your heart. He just is.